Study Launched on Physical Activity Support for Long COVID-19 Patients in the UK

The ukactive Research Institute, Sport England, and Sheffield Hallam University's Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre (AWRC) are working together to explore how organizations are delivering physical activity to people with long COVID-19, according to a Feb. 17 announcement by ukactive.

Long COVID is a multi-system disease that adversely affects the day-to-day activities of 2.1 million people in the United Kingdom (3.3 percent of the population). In the United States, long COVID impacts about 7.5 percent of adults, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

People with long COVID experience COVID-19 symptoms months or even years after they have had COVID-19. Symptoms can include fatigue that interferes with daily life, fever, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, chest pain, heart palpitations, difficulty concentrating, headache, sleep problems, change in taste and smell, and digestive issues, according to the U.S. CDC.

The study, which is planned for release this summer, also will look at the relationships with local health services in the United Kingdom that may be commissioning these activities or referring patients to them.

The researchers hope to gain a better understanding of the support available and provide initial insights into what helps patients to manage or improve their symptoms. 

Given the complexity of long COVID and the lack of clarity about how best to treat the condition — including the role of physical activity — it is essential that the physical activity sector is equipped with the skills and knowledge to support people and to avoid causing harm, according to ukactive.  

Some people with long COVID experience an increase in symptoms after exertion (termed post-exertional symptom exacerbation or PESE). Physical activity professionals must be knowledgeable about PESE and be able to recognize it so that their advice on physical activity is appropriate, according to ukactive.

Researchers will look at how health services are referring people with long COVID to organizations delivering physical activity, and the options and strategies available to support their recovery.

The first phase of the study will involve interviews with clinical, community and physical activity sector professionals. 

Then, an online survey will help determine how the sector is integrating physical activity safely into rehabilitation pathways. 

The final phase will seek to understand the relationship between long COVID clinical referrers and the physical activity sector.

“This study will provide vital guidance to our fitness and leisure organizations so they can best support people suffering from long COVID symptoms,” ukactive CEO Huw Edwards said. “The physical activity sector could play a fundamental role in people’s recovery from long COVID, which is another example where the sector has huge potential to work together with the NHS and support people’s health in community settings, to relieve pressure on our healthcare system.”

Dr Tom Maden-Wilkinson, associate professor at Sheffield Hallam University, said: “The ongoing experiences of people with long COVID needs to be addressed as a priority within our society. This work will allow us to see the current provision by the sport and leisure sector for people with long COVID and how people are accessing these services. 

“Importantly, we acknowledge that physical activity is not advisable for some people with long COVID, and we want to understand the implications of this for the sector, combining this with our understanding from our current research in this population.”

Ukactive is a not-for-profit membership body for the physical activity sector, which includes health clubs, studios, sports bodies and other activity providers, consumer brands, tech firms and equipment manufacturers.